The Pan Am Clipper finally landed in Panama City, just at sundown. My mother, my little brother and I had been flying for seventeen hours, and everyone was a little cranky. It seemed like it had been at least a month since we’d departed from New Orleans International Airport, on our way to my Dad’s new assignment with the Caribbean Air Command in the Canal Zone. The commercial airport in the Republic was here in the capital, which meant we would have to drive across the isthmus.
The cross isthmus highway was a relic of the U.S. Corp of Engineers construction of the Canal in 1914, and little had been done to improve it since. It was in the wee hours of the morning before we entered the Caribbean City of Colon. The streets were still crowded, and we could hear a hundred radios playing Latin music. Soon we left the hubbub of Colon, crossed over a wide tree shaded boulevard, and entered the Canal Zone and the little town of Cristobel. It was like returning to the States.
After a quiet drive, we went through the guarded gates of a military post. In this case, the sign said it was Fort Gulick, and it belonged to the U.S. Army. Dad followed the signs directing us to Non Commission Officers Housing, and soon we were home. Home proved to be duplex apartment built up on concrete pillars, with parking underneath. The interior was furnished in WWII period G.I. issue, and it felt exactly like all of the other posts we had lived on.
The next morning I had breakfast, and was sent to a street corner crowded with other kids to await the school bus. I looked around, and all I could see behind the houses appeared to be an impenetrable jungle. We had been stationed at Lowery Army Air Corp field in Denver, and on the grounds of an abandoned base in Spokane, Washington, but nothing like this. Strange or not, I had been the new kid enough times to have learned the drill for first day at a new school, and I decided to implement it on the bus.
I was mid-way through the third grade and had turned nine the previous September, and this would be the seventh new school since I’d started the first grade in Mobile, Alabama, when Dad got back from WWII. Clearly, this wasn’t my first rodeo. When I got on the bus, I looked around for the meekest, mildest looking kid I could find. I spotted him right away: a thin, pale little kid with braces and coke bottle bottom glasses. He’d be perfect.
I slid into the seat next to him, and I could see that he was shocked that anyone would sit with him. I said,
“Hi, I’m Tommy, what’s your name?”
He looked up apprehensively and replied,
“I’m Robert. You’re new aren’t you?”
“Yeah, my first day. How long have you lived here?”
“We moved here last year in the second grade, from Washington, D.C. My Dad is an MP.”
Well that certainly doesn’t help with your social position. I thought, nobody liked MP’s or their kids.
“Let me ask you something. Who would you say was the meanest, toughest kid on the bus?”
“You mean the whole bus?”
“Naw, just the guys in our grade.”
“The meanest guy doesn’t ride our bus; he lives in Cristobal and walks to school with his gang.”
“How about pointing him out when we get there, okay?”
“I don’t know why you would want to know, except to keep away from him, he’s a real jerk.”
“What’s his name?”
“Clarence, but he hates it. Everyone calls him Spike.”
When we got off the bus, all of the kids were milling around the schoolyard waiting for the first bell to sound. Robert nudged me and pointed to a group of three kids sitting on the building steps and said,
“There’s Spike and his buddies, sitting over there.”
“Which one is Spike?”
“He’s the big one, with the baseball cap. I’d leave them alone if I were you.”
“Nothing to worry about, I’m just going to go over and introduce myself.”
I strolled across the lawn until I was even with the group of kids, and reached out and snatched the cap off Spike’s head and said,
“C’mon Clarence, see if you can get your hat back.”
It took less than a second for the fire to rise in Spike’s eyes. He grunted something unintelligible and pushed to his feet. While both of his hands were being used to gain his bearings, I landed a right jab to his nose, splattering blood all over his face. I followed up with a left hook and another jab. Spike decided he’d had enough and covered his head and whimpered. I looked around at his buddies and asked,
“Anybody got a problem?”
They all looked at me in stunned disbelief, but no one said a word.
“I didn’t think so,” I added, “but if you change your mind, just check with my manager, Robert, okay?”
Spike and his buddies walked away, to get him cleaned up, I supposed, and I walked back to where Robert was standing, looking like a duck that had been hit in the head with a wooden spoon. As I walked up he said,
“Are you crazy? Spike’ll kill you!
“I seriously doubt that. In fact, I just told them that you were my manager, if anyone wanted a rematch.”
“Now you’re gonna get me killed.”
“Naw, your best friend is now the meanest kid in the third grade.”